It would have been easy for Nickelodeon Movies to make an animated big-screen version of their wildly popular series “Dora the Explorer,” which has been airing new episodes on and off since 2000. Wisely, the producers opted for a far more intelligent and entertaining approach with the new live-action adventure “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.”
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, director James Bobin, screenwriters Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller, and their game cast deliver a thoroughly amusing, thoughtful and timely entertainment that conveys its message with a subtlety that doesn’t negate its power.
The daughter of two intrepid explorers (Michael Pena and Eva Longoria) — it’s made very clear that “treasure hunters” are bad and “explorers” are good — Dora (Isabela Moner) is a curious young woman who’s as optimistic and adventurous as her parents. She’s eager to follow in their footsteps, but unfortunately, they decide to send her from their Colombian home to Los Angeles as they set out to find the mythical lost city of Parapeta.
This disappoints her greatly, though she will be reunited with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), who’s changed drastically from when last they met. Doing her best to acclimate to the urban jungle, Dora is suddenly kidnapped along with Diego and their two friends Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and taken back to Colombia by a group of mercenaries. Seems her parents have gone missing and these treasure hunters think our young heroine can help find them, so they can lead them to Parapeta, which is ripe for plundering.
Thankfully, Dora and her friends meet Alejandro Gutierrez (Eugenio Derbez), a colleague of her parents who agrees to help them.
As all this is playing out, the show’s many tropes are introduced, from Dora turning to the camera to ask the audience if they can pronounce a particular word to the introduction of her monkey companion, Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo). These are seen as flights of imagination that her parents hope she will grow out of, while a security checkpoint at high school involving her bottomless backpack proves to be a pointed, humorous moment commenting on the state of our paranoid society.
Even more on the mark is the portrayal of American high school students, who are seen as proud of being underachievers, while those living up to their potential are treated like pariahs. It’s a telling moment that won’t go unnoticed by adults in the audience.
Nods to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Tomb Raider” abound once the jungle-set adventure begins. The ornate action set pieces are rendered on a much smaller scale as befitting our pint-sized heroine, but this makes them no less thrilling. The message of girl power is present, but Bobin never beats us over the head with it. Rather, the film promotes teenage-empowerment, as each of the four principals overcomes personal fears and doubts to triumph in the end, low self-esteem be damned.
In the end, “Dora” is not simply about self-actualization but also being true to yourself and your heritage. Diego, having assimilated to the American way of life, comes to realize that his strength lies in his family and community.
Through his embrace of this and Dora’s resistance to the new ways she finds thrust upon, the film makes a pointed political statement amidst the teen-adventure shenanigans. Like its titular character, the film maintains a degree of strength and dignity that might initially be overlooked but should never be underestimated.
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Heartfelt “Brian Banks” a bit heavy-handed (★★½ out of four). On July 8, 2002, fate threw the 17-year-old namesake of the film a curveball that would alter his life forever. Falsely accused of rape, he was arrested and ultimately brought to trial as an adult. On faulty advice from his lawyer, he accepted a plea bargain that would result in his serving six years in jail and five years on probation and force him to register as a sex offender.
Somehow, the teenager survived his stint in prison, yet only found frustration on the outside as his record prevented him from securing a decent job. To make matters worse, before all of this, he had a bright future in football, as his skills had caught the eye of many a collegiate coach. A career in the NFL was not out of the question.
Tom Shadyac’s film recounts this tragic tale and also delves into the title character’s efforts to exonerate himself, a David vs. Goliath tale if ever there was one. Sincere and heartfelt, the film ultimately serves as a commercial for the California Innocence Project, an organization run by attorney Justin Brooks that devotes itself to overturning wrongful convictions and freeing those serving prison terms that should never have been levied.
While the movie’s heart is in the right place, Shadyac’s heavy-handed approach sometimes does the story a disservice, underscoring moments that ultimately leave an insincere taste in the viewer’s mouth.
Rendered in flashback, the film is told from Banks’ point of view, and Aldis Hodge brings a sincerity to the role that’s commendable, though there are moments when I wish he had employed a bit more subtlety.
Greg Kinnear provides a solid turn as Brooks, cautioning Banks throughout not to get his hopes up as their efforts to overturn his sentence is the longest of long shots, rallying the young man when necessary, and bringing him down to earth when needed. It’s the sort of understated performance that’s often overlooked, and the actor brings his A game during a tense moment late in the movie when he confronts Banks’ accuser.
The screenplay by Doug Atchison is straightforward to a fault. While it dutifully lays out Banks’ tale, including a love story that blossoms between him and a budding artist (Melanie Liburd), there are some holes that need addressing. Most glaring is the character Mick Randolph (Dorian Missick), Banks’ parole officer who seems to be inordinately cruel to our hero for no apparent reason. His efforts to block his charge’s attempts to clear his name occur at too-convenient times for the narrative and seem contrived, as does his change of heart toward the end. His purpose in the film seems disingenuous and undermines the conviction of it as a whole.
Equally troubling is Shadyac’s use of music to accentuate Banks’ plight — obvious, unnecessary songs that pander to the audience, making sure they understand just how inspirational all of this is supposed to be. It’s a bit insulting. Also, a couple of key questions about Banks’ original trial that are troubling emerge but go unanswered.
The film has been made with the best of intentions, and during the end credits, we get a rundown of the many successes Brooks and his institute have had. It is commendable work that needs to be promoted and encouraged, which is the purpose of “Brian Banks.” I just wish it had been done with a more deft hand.